Forager Finds: Oysters and Cheese

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Yes it’s the winter months (even though it feels like spring outside!) and the most frequently asked question I get is, “if you’re a Food Forager, what do you do in the winter time?”

It’s a valid question as most assume that the bulk of the food sourcing I do revolves around produce. The truth is, as the growing season winds down in southern New England, culinary professionals commence the hunt for all sorts of thing we may have overlooked while being inundated with wondrous produce our local farmers churn out all summer long.

Oysters are like bears.

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uring this (normally) frigid time of year our attention turns to the farmers and food producers practicing animal husbandry, food preservation, dairy production, and education. The start of winter for some farmers is a chance to settle down and breathe. For others, its winterizing the farm to keep the animals safe against storms, planning the crop rotation or, for some farmers, its just business as usual.

Oyster farmers are a great example of this. They work year round seeding, harvesting, and growing their shellfish in the oceans and salt ponds all throughout New England. Although the majority of the oysters they grow are consumed in the summertime, any oyster farmer worth their salt will tell you, “the best time to eat oysters is in the winter.” Jeff Gardner of Watch Hill Oysters should know, he’s been at this awhile. “Oysters are at their plumpest in the winter. Their fat content is high, and they have more glycogen in their system in December and January than at any other part of the year.”

Glycogen is a type of sugar that’s used as energy storage in animals and fungi. In oysters it can be found in their liver and is said to give the shellfish its sweetness.

“Oysters are like bears,” Jeff says, which is an interesting thought as both animals will build up a storage in preparation for enduring the winter. Just as December ends and January begins, the oysters have started to hibernate but have not yet tapped into their glycogen supply, making them prime for eating.

Another type of farmer that’s producing year round is the dairy farmer. What would the New Years eggnog be with out cream?

Although there is less clover and alfalfa for the cows to munch on, and the goats do roam less, this is not to say that we should swear off milk and cheese for the entirety of the colder months. Some even say this is the time to indulge. The fresh cheeses and cream of the spring have the flavors of fresh grass and newly sprouting herbs, but the winter cheeses have the decadence of rich butterfat. Although some goat farmers dry out their goats in the wintertime, there are those that take note from their Holstein-rearing brethren.vat_jleeds_web

Dairy cattle are fed hay and grains in the wintertime and, more often than not, kept indoors. This fat-rich diet and minimal exercise translates into milk with a higher fat content, ergo a richer cheese. A great example of this is Jasper Hill’s Winnimere. This cheese is only available during winter months and only made from the raw milk the cows produce while feeding on hay in the barn. Young cheeses are wrapped in strips of spruce cambium, the tree’s flexible inner bark layer, harvested from Jasper Hill Farm’s woodlands. During aging, the cheese is washed in a basic salt brine to help even rind development. At 60 days, this cheese is spoon soft and tastes of bacon, sweet cream and spruce. You can order this cheese directly from Jasper Hill or stop by Fromage Fine Foods in Old Saybrook, CT for a taste before you buy!

Winter foraging is certainly not limited to oysters and cheese! Go out and explore the winter farmers markets. Stop by local farm stands, they’ve been pickling and caning for months now, and their freezers are surely full, waiting for you to discover something fantastic.

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